By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Arguably the most exciting two weeks of the high school sports year begins this evening with the start of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s playoffs.
Quite a few local teams are looking to make deep runs.
The following is a look at each of the South Jersey sectional tournaments:
Favorite: (1) Shawnee
Contenders: (2) Toms River North, (3) Atlantic City, (4) Eastern
Sleepers: (7) Cherokee, (11) Lenape
Area teams: (3) Atlantic City, (6) Millville, (15) Vineland
Juicy first-round matchup: (11) Lenape at (6) Millville
Outlook: Shawnee managed to grab the top seed and has emerged as one of the best teams in South Jersey despite being beset by injuries all season. Some of those hurt are back, making the Renegades a tough bunch, particularly on their home floor. Toms River North enters the tournament having won nine of its last 10. Atlantic City will be motivated after losing the CAL title game in overtime to Wildwood Catholic. Eastern and Cherokee are lurking in the shadows somewhat, but both have enough to compete with every team in the section. Lenape is a better team than its 11th seed might suggest.
Favorite: (1) Timber Creek
Contenders: (2) Seneca, (4) Delsea, (11) Winslow Township
Sleeper: (3) Ocean City
Area teams: (3) Ocean City, (9) Mainland
Juicy first-round matchup: (9) Mainland at (8) Toms River East
Outlook: This isn’t the strongest section out there from top to bottom. Timber Creek is excellent, though, with wins over Shawnee, Eastern, Lenape and Cherokee on its resume. Seneca also has beaten Shawnee and can’t be taken lightly. Delsea has almost no size but is extremely quick and has good guard play. Winslow is a very dangerous No. 11 seed, despite being just 9-17. The Eagles have lost two close games to Timber Creek and also have a win over Seneca. It is not out of the question that Winslow could make a run all the way to the final out of the bottom side of the bracket, but Ocean City hopes to have other plans if the teams meet in the second round.
Favorite: (3) Camden
Contenders: (1) Cinnaminson, (2) Haddonfield
Sleepers: (5) Lower Cape May, (7) Haddon Heights, (8) Middle Township, (10) Pleasantville, (11) Willingboro
Area teams: (5) Lower Cape May, (8) Middle Township, (10) Pleasantville, (15) Cape May Tech
Juicy first-round matchup: (10) Pleasantville at (7) Haddon Heights
Outlook: This is a loaded bracket, with three excellent teams at the top and a handful of other clubs good enough to make a deep run if things fall into place. Camden, which features Middle Township transfer Corey Greer, is the favorite, however, even though it may have to play two road games to win the section. Haddonfield is talented and well coached. Some think Cinnaminson is a vulnerable top seed, but the Pirates enter the tournament coming off a solid win over Rancocas Valley. But the winner of the 8-9 game between Middle and Barnegat could give Cinnaminson trouble in the second round. Could Lower, as a No. 5 seed, get three home games if it keeps advancing?
Favorite: (1) Glassboro
Contenders: (2) Penns Grove, (3) Woodbury
Sleeper: (4) Wildwood
Area teams: (4) Wildwood, (16) Buena
Juicy first-round matchup: (11) Woodstown at (6) Haddon Township
Outlook: There are some good but certainly not unbeatable teams in this section. As the top seed, Glassboro is the favorite but enters the tournament having lost its final two regular-season games. The winner of a potential Penns Grove-Woodbury semifinal would be a tough out in the final. Wildwood could make a run here, especially since the guard-heavy Warriors won’t face anyone with overwhelming size, although a second-round game with (5) Paulsboro won’t be easy. The Warriors split two games with Penns Grove.
Favorite: (1) St. Augustine
Contenders: (2) Christian Brothers Academy, (4) Camden Catholic
Sleeper: (6) Bishop Eustace, (8) Paul VI
Area teams: (1) St. Augustine
Juicy first-round matchup: (9) Notre Dame at (8) Paul VI
Outlook: This is maybe not as strong of a section as Non-Public A can be, but there are still quite a few dangerous teams in it. Getting two home games ahead of the final should greatly benefit the Hermits, but Paul VI or Notre Dame could be a tough first matchup after the Prep enjoys a first-round bye. Camden Catholic and Bishop Eustace have been hardened by brutally tough Olympic Conference competition and could challenge. CBA is always a top team.
Favorite: (2) Ranney
Contenders: (1) Wildwood Catholic, (3) Mater Dei
Sleeper: (5) Trenton Catholic
Outlook: As good as Wildwood Catholic has been, Ranney is the favorite here. They’ve beaten Mater Dei, a top 10 team in the state, three times this season, including a 52-28 decision in the Shore Conference Tournament title game, holding Mater Dei to five points or less in three of the four quarters. Ranney has also beaten the Patrick School and features three potential Division I college players in its starting lineup. Still, Wildwood Catholic (24-2) is a definitely a threat after navigating the program’s most challenging schedule ever, losing its two games by a total of three points. The Crusaders should be brimming with confidence after an impressive run to the CAL tournament title. Trenton Catholic could prove to be a very difficult opponent for Wildwood Catholic in a semifinal game, although that contest would be in North Wildwood. But (4) St. Joseph is hoping for a third crack at the Crusaders, one the Wildcats could get if they can get past Trenton Catholic in the second round.